UK's New Health Secretary Bans a Punctuation Mark

Memo to Therese Coffey's staff asks them to avoid use of Oxford commas
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 16, 2022 8:11 AM CDT
This Headline Will Irk, Vex, and Rile UK's New Health Secretary
Therese Coffey arrives in Downing Street in London on Sept. 7 for the first Cabinet meeting since Liz Truss was installed as British prime minister.   (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

(Newser) – If Therese Coffey, the UK's new health secretary, saw the Twitter comment "Therese Coffey can take a running jump, give her head a wobble, and get in the bin," would she be most upset at a) the casual insult, b) the lack of substantive criticism related to health care issues, or c) the sentence's use of the Oxford comma, like the one we also just employed? We're going to guess "c," based on news out of Britain that Coffey really, really doesn't like that particular form of punctuation. The Guardian reports that staffers under Coffey, who also serves as Prime Minister Liz Truss' deputy PM, recently received a memo asking employees to be "precise" and "positive" in all communications with their new boss.

Staff in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) were also informed they shouldn't use "jargon" in their missives, per the Financial Times, which first reported the story. But perhaps most eyebrow-raising was the mandate that staffers not use one of Coffey's "pet hates": the Oxford comma (aka the serial comma), the punctuation mark used as the final comma in a written list of three or more items. The memo apparently didn't go over well, with one source telling the FT that the demand to stay positive "indicates a person who doesn't want to deal with problems." The source adds that the email overall was "super patronizing" to the departments, especially the UKHSA, which has seen big staff cuts this year.

Others online agree, per HuffPost UK, which cites the "get in the bin" example, plus other criticism, including one commenter who posted: "At what point do I resort to the use of expletives to describe what I think of Therese Coffey and this approach to managing the health care system?" DHSC sources acknowledged to the Guardian that such a memo did go out over the department's intranet, but they say Coffey didn't know it had been drafted and that there may have been "a bit of overeagerness" in its preparation. A UKHSA rep says in a statement that the department "does not comment on leaked emails or briefings" and that "we value enormously all of our hard-working colleagues." (Read more strange stuff stories.)

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